Thursday, April 30, 2015

Reading group: Stoner by John Williams

Another book very much liked and admired by everyone present at the meeting. Suggested by John, this novel, published in America in 1965 to only moderate sales and soon falling out of print, was revived in 2003 and has since become a bestseller across Europe - a surprise bestseller, since it deals with the quietest of subjects, the life of a university teacher of English stoically suffering obstructions in his academic career and an unhappy marriage.

John said that he had found the book as riveting and compulsive in spite of his subject matter as has been generally reported, and we all agreed. Firstly, the prose is so clean and spare and acute, and the insight into protagonist Stoner's stoical personality is deeply moving. John was very impressed by the control of the material and the finely-tuned selection of significant events and characters in the depiction of a whole life, a point later reiterated by Clare. Both John and Hans had been reading it for the second time, and both said that they had enjoyed it even more a second time around, and had got even more out of it. Clare said she would definitely like to read it again, a feeling that I believe was general. John commented that the book is in fact traditional in style - realist, linear in structure and measured in tone - and wondered if its publication in the same era as Jack Kerouac and the Beats had caused it at the time to be dismissed as merely old-fashioned (as well as unexciting). In fact, the book is hugely prescient in its study of the beginnings of the breakdown of the academy, the squeezing by more sinister worldly forces of the intellectual integrity that Stoner personifies, the failure of sincerity, as well as prefiguring the potential pitfalls of political correctness. Stoner's ability to keep steady through vicissitudes both professional and personal his own moral compass and his faith in the life of the mind and of literature, is perhaps heartening in an age when, as Julian Barnes puts it in his own article about the book, the inner space of the individual is assailed and monitored on all sides. In fact, the book has still not taken off in America in the way it has in Europe, and John suggested that, in its controlled, contemplative tone and its insistence on the life of the mind, it is in fact more European in flavour than American.

Significantly, Stoner's origins are simple and rural, embedded in the straightforward and the essential. A farm boy sent to agricultural college in order to learn techniques for the revival of his parents' spent land, he takes a compulsory literature course and falls in love with literature, after which he embarks on a literary academic career. Naive and inexperienced, however, he is soon doomed to marriage to a self-centred and manipulative wife. Potential happiness is constantly thwarted: a close relationship with his only child, a daughter, is spoilt when his wife decides to come between them; the daughter's life is subsequently blighted by the tensions and barrenness of her upbringing, and Stoner's wife engineers an estrangement from their grandson. The one sexually passionate relationship of Stoner's life, with a female fellow academic, founders on the quite evil machinations that already blight his academic life.

We discussed the fact that many people thus see Stoner's life as sad, and the book as a sad book, but none of us present felt it was that simple. We felt there was redemption, indeed something quite uplifting, in the way that through all of these troubles, literature remains a constant consolation to Stoner; as Williams himself said in an interview (quoted in John McGahern's Introduction to the Vintage edition), he has the satisfaction of continuing to do the one thing he loves most, study literature - not in fact caring for the professional advancement his enemies seek for themselves - and he never once loses his moral integrity. Stoner's professional enemy, the disabled Hollis Lomax, uses not only his own disability against Stoner, but a similarly disabled student Charles Walker, sending Walker to attend Stoner's tutorials where he is disruptive and fails to complete the academic tasks. Stoner fails Walker, and Lomax calls for a viva. When in the viva Walker appears to know his subject thoroughly, thus seeming to prove Stoner unjust, Stoner, rather than being sorry that he is apparently proved wrong and is thus falling into Lomax's hands, is glad - for the sake of the student, and for the sake of literature and the intellect; when, later in the interview, further questions show that in fact Walker knows little and, prepared for the viva by Lomax, has been merely parroting him, Stoner is disappointed rather than triumphant. There is redemption too for the reader in the uplifting quality of the prose.

John puzzled a little about the fact that it didn't seem on the surface a psychological novel: it is written in an objective third person, and although we take Stoner's perspective - apart from one or two occasions when we take that of his wife Edith - we do constantly see Stoner, as well as all the other characters, entirely objectively. We don't share his interiority, as Clare pointed out; at the most we are told Stoner's reactions and emotions, but most often often not even that: they are left unstated. We can however always infer them, and their causes, and, as Ann said, this book is a classic and supreme example of 'show not tell.'

There was now a lot of relishing of the events of the novel and discussion of the characters and their motives, situations and emotions. (Some people could see Edith's pampered yet restrictive female upbringing as creating her character, and thus felt some sympathy, but Clare said she was simply 'evil'.) John then wondered about the political correctness of making the disabled Lomax and Walker so evil. I said that I thought that the point was that Lomax and Walker used their disability precisely to manipulate by taking advantage of others', and in particular Stoner's, wariness of acting prejudicially towards them - in other words, it was an abuse of what we now call political correctness. Ann pointed out that Lomax and Walker are direct literary descendants of Shakespeare's Richard III, and that this was a conscious authorial reference: they even look the way the Richard III has frequently been depicted, and indeed Lomax is said by the narration to have the face of a 'matinee idol'. Trevor said he thought that the disability was a specific metaphor for race: Lomax and Walker stood for the black lecturers who he said could not have existed in white American universities at the time the novel is set (Stoner begins university in 1910 and retires in 1956), though no one else could subscribe to this or follow its logic. John pointed out that if Williams had been concerned with race he would have raised issues around the black worker whom Stoner's parents take on when Stoner does not return to the farm, but he does not do so, and Clare objected that black academics would have been outsiders and quite unable to insinuate themselves into positions of power within the white establishment as Lomax and Walker do.

One person, I think Jenny, said that one thing she did find missing in the book was a sense for the reader of the joy of literature that Stoner experiences. When the rest of us thought about it, we agreed (as fiction lovers ourselves, we had taken the joy of literature for granted), and John said that he had been surprised to be not much impressed by the Shakespeare sonnet that gives Stoner his road-to-Damascus revelation about literature: it was a sonnet he hadn't known, and thought it was perhaps not one of the best. Personally, I find poems very hard to read in the middle of novels: I think they require a different kind of reading and it's very hard to adjust to them in middle of the flow of prose, and the blank reaction of everyone else to John's comment perhaps means that others were similarly unable to give it the right attention.

After the meeting, Doug, who had been unable to attend, sent his comments, and he turned out to be one of those people who find the book too sad. Having started out enjoying the book with its initial story of 'a life seemingly preordained becoming suddenly full of unexpected possibilities', Doug began to be 'overwhelmed' by the many setbacks and what he saw as the pessimism of the novel: '...the sadness of the book seeped into me - that's not a good thing.'

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Writing and gardening

A couple of afternoons late last November I planted these daffodils and a whole load more. Earlier, in October, John had come back from B&Q with a great sackful, which was nice of him, but I have to say I found it pretty daunting (I'm the flower gardener - on the odd occasions when I get time! - and John sticks to pruning trees and spreading compost and things - when he gets time!). According to the gardening books, by late November I was cutting it fine and would miss the window if I didn't soon get out there, so one afternoon I pulled on my coat and hat and gardening gloves and went out with the sack of bulbs and the trowel. It was cold, a dull grey afternoon with the light already fading, and I can tell you I didn't feel like it in the least. And the ground was so hard, and there were so many roots, it was such ruddy physical hard work. Each of the two afternoons I really had to make myself keep going, and not give up before it got too dark to see the ground and I had to anyway.

And now here they are, all over the garden, and it was so worth gritting my teeth those two days and making the effort. And it struck me, when all the flowers started unfolding, how much it was like the experience that writing can sometimes be: the sheer grimness when what you want to say is too complex or subtle to come easily, and the need to keep going to find the way to say it, revise and rewrite, not give up. And then the joy when after all it all comes together and looks as though it sprouted all on its own, and wasn't difficult at all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Unthology 7

Here's the great cover of the latest Unthology, the series which has been said to be 'quietly becoming a reliable guide to the modern short story' (The Workshy Fop). Edited as usual by Ashley Stokes and Unthank director Robin Jones, Unthology 7, due out this summer, includes my story 'Looking for the Castle' which was runner-up in last year's Short Fiction competition. I love the retro vibe of the cover - which incidentally it shares with the cover of my forthcoming collection, Used to Be (it's a bit of a thing at the moment, isn't it?) - as well as the communication-media theme - and it's a great design.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Reading group: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

This recent novel, Jenny's suggestion, is based on the real-life experiences of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway. It consists of four sections, each devoted to the viewpoint of one of the wives at the point of the breakdown or end of the marriage when Hemingway already has another prospective wife lined up, or, in the case of the last wife, Mary, shoots himself and dies. Jenny was afraid that the rest of us would find it too trashy, as it has been a popular success, and was cheaply available at Tesco's, but several of us had had the impression from reviews that it was in fact well-written, and so we readily agreed.

A few days later I met Mark and he'd already begun reading it. He said he was bowled over by it, and I was inclined to agree, having glanced at the first page or two and found the prose spare and evocative. However, when it came to the meeting, only Mark and Trevor were wholeheartedly admiring, which Trevor suggested might be a man thing (implying I think a self-ironic identification with Hemingway), although I'm not sure Mark went along with that, and neither John nor Doug were entirely in favour of the book. We had all found it an easy read, but John spoke for others of us in saying that it didn't somehow fulfil its promise. Jenny said that she'd enjoyed reading it (as I think most of us did), and she was very taken by the book's structure. She said she had never liked Hemingway and, having read the book, she disliked him a whole lot more. However, she felt that he wasn't fleshed out.

I picked up on this last, agreeing. I said that we never properly get to see what is attractive about Hemingway to these women. Mark and Trevor disagreed. Mark (I think) said, wasn't the point of the book the women, and their experience, not Hemingway? I replied that since the whole point about the women is their fatal attraction to Hemingway, an attraction which dominated and ruined or deeply affected their lives, then in order to fully understand the women we need to fully appreciate that attraction. The objection came back: isn't it made abundantly clear that he's charismatic and wonderfully good-looking? I said that it isn't enough to be told that he is, which I agreed we are, right from the start in first wife Hadley's section: 'In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him.' A novel needs to do more than tell you things, it needs to make the reader share experience (in this case the women's overwhelming attraction to Hemingway). Although I feel I know in theory exactly the kind of man Hemingway must have been, and have known men like him and know their attraction, I didn't in reading this book experience a sense of Hemingway's. In fact, although I know very well what Hemingway looked like, I didn't come away with any vivid sense of how precisely he may have looked to a wife in any particular scene in this book: as Jenny had indicated, I didn't get any real sense of his physical presence: he came over more as an idea, and a shallow one at that.

John said he was never clear what attitude to Hemingway the author had, or intended you to have. There was now a brief discussion about Hemingway, about the psychological mechanism behind his serial monogamy, the fact that although he was an adulterer, his longing was for monogamy, yet he always destroyed his marriages with adultery: the fact, in other words, that he needed security and a mummy figure but always also wanted a new toy - a typical sexist paradigm. This discussion was conducted mainly among us women, and the general tone was dismissively feminist. I said however that I thought that this was, on the contrary, something to do with Hemingway's attraction. Hemingway's short stories betray a refined sensibility - they could only have been written by a sensitive person. John joined in here and said yes, the point was that he was a sensitive man in an age and place where sensitivity wasn't acceptable in men, when what was considered desirable was machismo, which is enough to send any sensitive man into crisis. I suggested what I do strongly believe, which is that it was this sensitivity that was attractive to the women - or perhaps more accurately the poignancy of the paradox: the sensitivity and vulnerability beneath the machismo front - and why they were so driven to care for him, his second wife Fife long after the end of their marriage and even through his next two marriages. I didn't get any real, somatic sense of this in the novel. In other words, I felt that the situation called for a closer, more psychological anatomisation of a crisis in machismo than I felt this novel achieved - important, even if the viewpoint is that of the women, since it was their precise concern and focus, and so devastating for them.

There was disagreement among us about the depiction of the women. Jenny and Mark in particular liked the differing perspectives, the fact that the Other Woman becomes the suffering wife and, having seen her as a threat from outside, you then adopt her viewpoint. Others of us liked this too, but John, Ann and I felt that the wives were not sufficiently differentiated. John had said earlier that he found the book repetitious: you got the point about the situation in the first section and after that it was simply repeated, and Mark and Trevor had countered that the whole essence of the situation was repetition, which seemed a fair enough point. However, we felt that there was something repetitive about the characters too. People objected, But surely the women were clearly very different characters, Hadley the rather pedestrian and domestic first wife, Fife the society gal, Martha Gellhorn the tough journalist, and Mary the last wife perhaps the most sensible. We said, but we didn't find their voices differentiated. As Ann and I pointed out, although every section is written in the third person, that third is intimate, and there could have been a greater differentiation of language, which would have created clearer differentiation of psychology in the wives. Ann suggested that the real-life history is so well known and well documented and digested that this both got in the way of a fully novelistic depiction of the characters and allows a reader to compensate for the lack and to read into the text what he/she already knows. For us, however, it remained a lack.

I also found a similar lack of attention in the prose, disappointingly after my first impression, and the book therefore less well written than Mark considered, and than several reviews had led me to believe. There are metaphors the constructions of which have unintentionally comical effects: insects whir not like cogs but 'as if all their cogs were motoring along' (how many insects have cogs?) and a group of visitors don't just leave 'like a school of fish' but with 'silver-flecked skin... flashing'. Some metaphors and similes are ill thought through. I was pulled up short by the construction of 'Peonies rise from pots as big as fists', by being quite unable to visualise it and thinking: But flowerpots are bigger than fists, aren't they? Oh, peonies! But aren't peonies bigger than fists anyway?' all of which entirely deflected me from an interesting intimation of violence which I now see. I laughed out loud at 'Cuba became one solid raindrop' as a description of rain, though I'm sure I wasn't intended to, and I am still puzzled by the idea that a hefty box could 'gleam like a tooth', a tooth conjuring the idea of something small. I didn't have the chance to point out these instances, though, and Trevor remained adamant that the book was very well written, and as we finished the discussion, Mark and Trevor were unbent in their enthusiasm for the book.

Doug hadn't in fact been able to make the meeting, but he sent the following comments, tending to agree with those who had been more critical:

"A bit of an enigma for me, just as the main man was in this depiction.  I liked the hints made about Hemingway, but it was also frustrating that he was not more real; the reasons why the women were so fascinated by him were never clear and I didn't get any sense of the obvious charm that he must have had.

As for the women, the first 3 came across as quite stereotyped.  The homely one, the conniving one, the independent one.  But then redemption in the final character.  I thought the section with Mary was superb.  The real sense of melancholy exuded by Hemingway and the beautifully expressed grief and loneliness of Mary in the aftermath of his death.  Mary will stick in my memory while the others fade quickly away."

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Barry White at Stockport Art Gallery

A couple of Saturdays ago I went to a private view of Barry White's paintings at Stockport Art Gallery. Barry's paintings are abstract, and that's as far as I'll go to say anything about them, apart from the fact that I like them a lot, since Barry is also famously averse to talking about his paintings, believing that they are their own communication, not requiring the medium of words for appreciation. It's a bit hard for me to keep schtum, purveyor of words as I am -  at one point I said to someone at the preview that I loved the half-hidden grids in the paintings, and she replied, having read Barry's written declaration as above, that she didn't regard them as grids, just as shapes, so I buttoned my mouth.

Another thing I will say, though, is that the huge paintings are set off to great advantage in the gallery boardroom. Barry is also known for his dark paintings in which he uses a lot of black and grey highlighted with red, as displayed in a show of smaller paintings last year in Didsbury's Art of Tea, and people were surprised by the use of bright oranges and yellows of some of the paintings at Stockport. I had seen them before, however, at a private view at Barry's studio in North Manchester last summer (below), and had loved them then.

The show is on until the end of May, and I thoroughly recommend it.